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Mad House at the Ambassador Theatre, London

It’s not the salient point of the show – well, perhaps it is for asset-hungry Pam (Sinéad Matthews) – but I became fascinated with how Daniel’s (Bill Pullman) family were going to resolve the matter of his estate after his death, whenever that was supposed to be. That might not, as ‘hospice nurse’ Lillian (Akiya Henry) points out, be for some time, as people near the end of their lives are less communicative than one would reasonably expect a person to be: Daniel may no longer be able to climb stairs, and there’s a wheelchair outside the back door, but his mind and his voice are (luckily enough for a play) in fine form.

Bill Pullman (Daniel) in Mad House. Photo by Marc Brenner
Bill Pullman (Daniel) in Mad House. Photo by Marc Brenner.

A hospice nurse is at Daniel’s home because he has determined that he does not want to go to hospital should anything that would otherwise call for a trip to the ‘emergency room’ – the best, or least worst, option – and the one he wants – is for a ‘do not resuscitate’ order to be in place, and for him to live as comfortably as is feasible at home and not in a hospital or in a care facility. Michael (David Harbour) tells anyone who cares, as well as anyone who doesn’t, that he’s been looking after his father for eleven months. Daniel has emphysema, and while his no-nonsense gregarious character may have served him well during his working life, it is something of an irritation for Michael, whose efforts to look after Daniel in his twilight years are seldom, if ever, met with gratitude – meals thrown on the floor in disgust, sharp and cutting remarks, yelled demands rather than civilised requests, and so on.

Political correctness goes out of the window, and not just from the older man – Pam’s aggression and threats towards Lillian could be construed as more racist than anything Daniel says or does. Pam and Nedward (Stephen Wight) are Michael’s siblings, though they are both too busy to visit their father regularly. Daniel’s relatively incapacitated state means he hears everything the siblings talk about, mostly because there is so much shouting in the back garden that double-glazed windows and closed doors are neither here nor there. It also means the audience gets the hair-dryer treatment, even if there is a cathartic release that comes from clearing the air. That the three siblings talk, or rather yell, about their father as though he can’t hear them, struck me as bizarre. Mad, even.

The narrative broaches a number of pertinent issues – and for some, this may feel like a box-ticking exercise: sibling rivalry, mental health, the influence of the church on American family life – tick, tick, tick. Is it an accurate reflection of living, or surviving, in the land of the free? Having never been a resident of the United States, it’s hard for me to say, although the portrayal of these characters is far from stereotypical in some respects: there isn’t a hamburger, gun or national flag in sight. But workaholic attitudes creep in – Michael is incredulous at the mere suggestion of a different nurse visiting the following day because it’s Lillian’s day off. And then there’s Devon (Hanako Footman) and Skylar (Charlie Oscar), (or is it Skylar and Devon?), who aren’t given much to do beyond coming home with Michael one evening and, for a fee, providing him and Daniel with a good time.

There’s nothing wrong, I suppose, with living a little: Daniel’s recollection of a rather odd moment in Michael’s youth is told with surprising nostalgia. The play’s ending is inconclusive, which, if I’m being generous, allows for conversations after the show about what might happen to these characters and if the family conflicts would ever be resolved one way or another. It is difficult not to have strong feelings for the characters, however, and despite a convoluted storyline, one feels invested and engrossed in the story. An underlying acerbic style of humour permeates proceedings, which gives it yet more appeal. There’s much food for thought in this raw and rowdy show.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

A family reunion. Time to pay your last disrespects.

David Harbour and Bill Pullman star in MAD HOUSE, a dark and funny new play by Theresa Rebeck (Seminar, Smash, Bernhardt/Hamlet).

In rural Pennsylvania, Michael has returned to his childhood home to look after his dying father. His siblings Ned and Pam soon arrive, determined to work out how much money Dad actually has left and how they’re getting their hands on it.

David Harbour (Stranger Things, Black Widow, The Newsroom) and Bill Pullman (The Sinner, All My Sons, Independence Day) return to the West End in the world premiere of Theresa Rebeck’s new play. Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel (Hand to God, Present Laughter), MAD HOUSE opens at the Ambassadors Theatre this June for a strictly limited season.

Hanako Footman plays Devon.
David Harbour plays Michael.
Akiya Henry plays Lillian.
Sinead Matthews plays Pam.
Charlie Oscar plays Skylar.
Veteran of the stage and screen Bill Pullman returns to the London stage to star as Daniel, the patriarch of the family.
Stephen Wight plays Nedward.

Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel
Set Design by Frankie Bradshaw;
Costume Design by Tilly Grimes
Composed by Isobel Waller-Bridge;
Sound Design by Beth Duke for Autograph Sound
Lighting Design by Prema Mehta

Mad House
Ambassadors Theatre, London

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